Thoughts from the Past

The Royal Observer Corps Post at Herne Bay, Kent 1944-1945.

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I joined the Royal Observer Corps in November 1944 as a part-time "Boy" Observer at Post 1/B4 Herne Bay, Kent, a unit of No 1 Group R.O.C. Maidstone.

The post itself was then situated on the clifftop or downs in the local language to the east of the town and was one of the four "Baker" Cluster of posts, the others being located at Whitstable, Canterbury, and Chislet. The view to the sea covered some 180 degrees, from the Isle of Sheppy in the West to the Isle of Thanet in the East, and on a clear day one could see across the Thames Estuary to the Essex coastline at Foulness, and the Anti Aircraft "Forts" built on the sandbanks in-between.

The actual building was made of brick with a platform about five feet above ground level forming the centre, this was in the shape of a square about nine feet across, open to the sky, with walls four feet high, topped with folding glass screens all round. In the centre of the floor was a wooden stand with a shelf for books and papers and another below to hold the post telephone box of First World War origin and on one side were two switches, one to fire a signal rocket set on a stand nearby, and the other to sound the Air Raid Warning in the town in the event of a surprise low level attack from the sea. On top of the stand was a circular chart table to the scale of 1 inch to the mile that covered the area up to 12 miles from the post, the coastline and other features were marked on it together with the locations of other posts and a numbered grid to enable position reports to be made, over this was mounted the Post Instrument, a form of pantograph through which aircraft could be sighted to give an indication of their position for onward reporting to the "Centre" at Maidstone.

At the South side of the observation platform was a concrete roofed shelter with a open door facing North, and the cold winds in Winter, inside of which was a coke stove that hardly ever went out as not only was it a source of heat, it was also used to keep a kettle boiling for hot drinks and for cooking light meals. On either side of the stove was a large leather chair, taken from the front of a very superior car and very comfortable.

The shelter and the sides of the post were banked with earth over which grass had grown to give it the appearance of a small hillock, alongside which were two huts, one with beds and furniture and the other housed an Elsan. A copy of a pen and ink sketch that I drew in August 1945 is attached.

The post crew consisted of a Chief Observer, part-time, a Leading Observer, full-time and three other full-time members supported by twelve other part-time Observers which included three Boys like myself, who received pay of ninepence per hour as opposed to the 1 shilling and threepence per hour of the others We also received an extra ration points card that allowed us fat, eg butter or marg. , bacon, tea and sugar. The four full-time observers worked a 48 hour week each in eight hour shifts, and the remainder covered the round the clock manning by four hour shifts, needless to say we were all very keen on Aircraft Recognition and the younger ones were more than pleased to get paid for looking at aircraft as it was something that we did all the time. I used to undertake from two to five shifts per week while still attending school in Canterbury but I normally manned the post with the Chief Observer, John Gore on the only period of duty that he did, Sunday morning, when many of the retired gentlefolk took their morning walk along the "downs" we almost always received a "good morning" as they passed by and some men even raised their hats to the Chief as he was well known and well liked in the town.

The Herne Bay post sited near to the original Armada Beacon provided for it's members a grandstand view of the war in the air and apart from one incident described later in complete safety as no bombs fell on the town, they watched the Battle of Britain, reporting the great enemy formations on their way to and from London and many crashes of aircraft from both sides, their information being of use to the local fishermen who hauled several airmen from the sea. The Battle was followed by the gradual build up of first the Royal Air Force’s and later the United States Eighth Army Air Force Bomber Command’s offence against the enemy and as well as the reporting of the large numbers by night and day there was plenty of activity by the local fighter squadrons from near by RAF Manston as well as training and other miscellaneous aircraft. Following the "D Day" operations on 6th June 1944 came the V 1 Flying Bombs and lastly the V2 Rockets, it was one of these that fell close to the post on a calm spring evening as it exploded in the sea about a quarter of a mile away throwing up a large amount of water, sand and mud but doing no effective damage although it shook up the two observers on duty and caused some concern to the Maidstone Centre as they lost telephone contact and by means of simple triangulation of reports from other posts assumed that the rocket had hit the post site. I was about a mile away in the town at the time talking to friends and we thought that the double bang we heard was caused firstly by the warhead being separated from the main body by an explosive charge and the second by the explosion of the warhead itself, a common theory at the time although it was eventually realised that we had heard a sonic boom as the missile was reputed to be travelling at 3000 miles an hour on impact. On a clear day one could occasionally see the vertical vapour trails of V2s fired from Holland, pointing like white fingers in the sky, and once when on duty at the post I saw quite by chance a V2 explode in the sea over towards the Essex coast.

To return to the advent of the VI Flying Bomb more well known as the "Doodlebug", the official code name was "Diver" and as expected the first sighting and reports carne from an Observer Post, they were launched from sites in northern France and aimed at London, a guidance system kept them on a straight course at a height of between 100 and 3000 feet at speeds of up to 400 miles per hour, the defence was split up into five bands or areas, two of fighters, two of anti-aircraft artillery and the other of a balloon barrage, the Herne Bay post was within a Fighter Area and was equipped with signal rockets that could be fired to attract the attention of patrolling fighter pilots. Some posts in the Group were equipped with two way radios manned by RAF Fighter Controllers who could speak with the pilots direct as the speed of the Doodlebugs was to great to allow them to be intercepted using the current reporting procedures. Following the liberation of Northern France a long range version of the V1s were launched from Holland and some of these were seen and reported by the post observers, these became easy targets for the AA Guns located on the Forts out in the estuary, there was a note in the log book of eight out of eight being shot down in succession. The final attack came from the air launched V1s, carried by Heinkel-11 bombers and fired off at the entrance of the Thames Estuary, they were of little more then a nuisance and the mother aircraft were easy prey to the Mosquito night fighters as they were illuminated by the act of launching their bomb.

Each coastal post in No 1 Group had a special high powered pair of binoculars donated by the United States Navy, and I spent most of my time on duty scanning the sky with these, they were also handy for checking the time from the town clock which was always correct and was located in its tower about a mile away.

There were many different types of aircraft flying over the County of Kent during the last six months of the war and I have attached a list compiled from my notes made at the time as a appendix to this report. I suppose that the most impressive were the large formations of American Bombers that used the Thames Estuary as a forming up point, often circling for an hour or more as further Bomb Groups were marshalled into place by their lead ships, brightly painted "retired" bombers which left the formation as the bomber stream headed for its target. At night the RAF bombers could be heard but rarely seen as they flew out in massed streams towards their targets and as can be imagined these formations caused considerable difficulties in reporting and plotting their course as often the large numbers of aircraft were flying over two or even three ROC Groups and the object of the game to the ROC at least was to locate the four corners of the massed raid as it was called.

The returning bombers many of them damaged or carrying wounded aircrew were initially the special responsibility of the ROC, although being an integral part of Fighter Command its secondary role was to assist both the British and American bombers to return home or to the nearest airfield or to one of the Emergency Airfields such as Manston where facilities existed to receive them. We often saw aircraft severely damaged or on fire circling over the sea, sometime dropping their bombs before coming into land. The organisation to recover our own bombers had been set up in 1943 and was highly efficient by this time, some post observers could speak direct to the aircraft by a set known as "Darkie" other posts were aided by their own Radar set and a system involving RAF and Army searchlights and beacons were used at night.

Towards the end of the war the ROC reporting and plotting system in No 1 Group was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of aircraft in the air, the two Bomber Commands were flying food relief missions to the starving Dutch people and supply missions to the ground troops returning with ex prisoners of war and on the 7th May we were told that the war in Europe would end the next day but that the post would continue to be manned until further notice.

On the 8th May, VE Day, we were ordered to attend the Church Parade and March past in the town and we duly assembled and were inspected and thanked by some local VIP as we stood outside the Central Bandstand where the service was held. Later in the week when the photographs appeared in the window of the Herne Bay Press, the local newspaper, all the observers were looking up at the sky! The photographer had chosen a moment when we were all looking at a Fortress flying overhead, there was no doubt that we were going to miss our watch on the skies over the Thames Estuary.

The order came through that the Royal Observer Corps would stand down at Midday on 12th May, messages were passed from the Group Commandant to all ranks thanking them for their devoted service over five and a half years, the two full time observers unplugged the telephone and placed all the post equipment in the shed then they, followed by the Chief Observer, got on their bicycles and rode away leaving the post empty for the first time since 24th August 1939, there was no ceremony, the war was over, the job was done but many thoughts must have been left behind of the men who had worked on the post and of the incidents both comical and tragic, but mostly routine that they had witnessed.

Peter Barrington

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Royal Observer Corps Post 1/B4 Herne Bay, Kent

Aircraft list 1944/1945

ALBERMARLE
ANSON
AUSTER
AVENGER
BARACUDA III
BEAUFIGHTER
BLACK WIDDOW P.61
CATALINA 0A.1 USAAF
DAKOTA/C.47
EXPEDITOR
FORTRESS. B.I7 AND RAF MK III    
GLADIATOR.
HALIFAX
HORSA
HUDSON
HURRICANE
INVADER. A.26
LANCASTER
LIBERATOR.B.24
LIGHTNING. P.38
MARTINET TT
MARAUDER B.26
METEOR
MITCHELL
MOSQUITO MK 6 AND 30
MUSTANGP.51 AND RAF
OXFORD
SPITFIRE MK IX.XIV. XVI. AND 21
STIRLING
SWORDFISH
SUNDERLAND
TEMPEST MKV
THUNDERBOLT. P.47D AND M
TYPHOON
VENGANE TT
WALRUS
WELLINGTON
V1 FLYING BOMB AND V2 CONTRAILS

[18jul09 19:00]